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The Disingenuous Campaign Against Concussions

The NFL made an excellent demonstration Sunday of why concussions may eventually spell its demise: the hits that are legal are just as nasty as the ones that aren't, and injuries will continue to pile up as dishonest executives and a subservient media peddle the deliberately murky distinction.

The moment of truth came in the fourth quarter of the AFC Championship Game: the Baltimore Ravens' Bernard Pollard dislodged the ball from the New England Patriots' Stevan Ridley with a devastating helmet-to-helmet blow, which left Ridley unconscious. In a truly disgusting display, the Ravens congregated and celebrated the fumble feet from Ridley's twitching body, taking as accomplishment the physical effects of brain trauma. 

And yet the flags remained in the referees' pockets, unmoved by precisely the kind of hit the NFL has made a campaign of eliminating. The reason, and the problem, was that the hit was legal.

In the wake of overwhelming evidence connecting head injuries sustained in football games to long-term dementia, depression, and severe cognitive impairment, the NFL has waged a public offensive against the game's most explicitly violent hits. Penalties have increased for hits on defenseless wide receivers and quarterbacks, and fines have been levied against offenders on a consistent basis. But the effort, led nominally by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, has always missed the forest for the trees; it tends to be the accumulation of smaller hits, not the blockbuster smashes, doing the most damage.

But even as far as the big hits are concerned, the NFL's efforts are profoundly limited. Helmet-to-helmet rules fail to provide adequate protection for running backs, and the campaign against concussions has done nothing to lessen the grey area between perfect tackle and dangerous takedown in an inherently violent sport. 

Baltimore's coach, John Harbaugh, called the helmet-to-helmet hit on Ridley, which caused a concussion, "football at its finest." The comment recalled the reaction to a hit placed on the San Francisco 49ers' Vernon Davis by the Seattle Seahawks' Kam Chancellor a few weeks earlier, in which Davis suffered a concussion.

"It was the kind of clean, hard shot that ought to be distributed as a teaching tool, to players and officials," wrote the NBC-owned website Pro Football Talk in the aftermath of the game. The article called Chancellor's hit a "textbook tackle" and praised the NFL for concluding that the hit was legal and deciding not to fine the player. In so doing, Pro Football Talk wrote, "the league has shown there is still room for big hits."

Herein lies the problem. Football is a sport of big hits, and trying to extract them is a difficult game. It is not just that the audience wants them; it is that the league, without a significant reevaluation of the rules, has almost no mechanism to remove them. It is the "textbook tackles" that are causing brain injuries, the kinds of traumas that last year led legendary linebacker Junior Seau to kill himself. These, the article on Pro Football Talk made clear, are what everyone wants.

What will need to end, if there is to be a resolution, is the willful hypocrisy on the part of the fans, the media, and the NFL, in which there are concussion-causing hits that are condemned and concussion-causing hits that are celebrated. In a dialogue that is profoundly confused, there will be a sudden change or there will be little basis on which to challenge the idea of football as revised gladiator combat, a sign of its times, and after, a wisp.

Jamie Berk